Friday, August 08, 2014

Want your child to do well at school? Eat dinners as a family: Sitting together at meal times boosts concentration and social skills

It’s a cry that rings out in millions of British homes every evening.

But in the age of computer games and social media, ‘dinner’s ready’ rarely means families actually sit down and eat together.

Now new research suggests parents striving to bring up well-behaved children should insist that they gather round the table with the rest of the family.

Psychologists who studied children aged six to eleven found they concentrated more at school, acquired better social skills and got into much less trouble as teens if they regularly took part in family meals.

But it needs to happen at least four times a week to have any major benefit.  Research suggests less than a third of British families sit down to dinner together every night.

A 2012 survey found extended working hours, lengthy commutes for parents and children’s after-school commitments meant families rarely ate together.

Other factors include children wanting different types of food, or demanding to watch TV at the same time.

Although numerous studies have shown family meals can have a positive effect on adolescent behaviour, the latest research concentrated on the long-term effects on younger children.

Experts at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University analysed the eating habits of more than 24,000 young children who took part in a major health study in 2007.

The US National Survey of Children’s Health recorded youngsters’ dietary patterns but also looked at behaviour, school performance and social skills.

The results, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found more frequent family meals increased the odds of a child having positive social skills and being more engaged in school by around ten per cent.  At the same time, eating together reduced the risk of bad behaviour by about eight per cent.  Earlier studies showed shared family meals can also reduce the risk of drug abuse and depression among teenagers.

In a report on their findings the researchers said eating together provides stability and contact for vulnerable youngsters. ‘It is also possible that the organisational features of meals, as part of the family routine, may provide structure, order and predictability to the family and have an effect on health related outcomes.  ‘They provide a supportive family environment in which parents can connect with their children and monitor their activities.

‘Although there is no certainty in the number of weekly mealtimes needed to provide a protective child health outcome, previous research has indicated four or more as optimal.’

Dr Fiona Starr, psychologist at Middlesex University, said family meals give parents a vital opportunity to catch up on what’s going on in their children’s lives.  She said: ‘It’s also a time when young children acquire language skills and learn how to listen.

‘But it’s really important that parents impose a ‘no screens’ rule at the dinner table, so that there are no games, phones or iPads.  ‘It’s fine to have a TV dinner every now and again with the family but no screens at the table is essential.’


Traditional teaching: effective teaching

By Nevile Gwynne

The wildly unexpected success of my two books, Gwynne's Grammar and Gwynne's Latin, has produced a number of interesting side-effects.

One of these, the most startling of all, has been several invitations to visit schools – both fee-paying and state-funded – for the express purpose of teaching teachers how to teach. A few months ago I was even flown as far as Gibraltar for this purpose.

Just what formal qualifications have I, it may reasonably be asked, for a teacher-teaching role? As remarkable as anything, absolutely none, unless you count my having reached my seventies.

Indeed, I always argue that my most important qualification of all is the fact that I have never been exposed to anything like modern teacher-training.

The most recent of these invitations was from a large school - 1300 children - in Coventry called the Sidney Stringer Academy.

Back in March, Mrs Nicola Neto, a teacher and Latin-enthusiast, who had been allowed to start teaching Latin to the top class, saw an article about my teaching in this very newspaper.

She noticed in it my often-repeated claim that, because of modern teaching-methods and the Cambridge Latin Course used in most schools, I had been finding that that I could teach children more Latin in half an hour than they had learnt in several years at school.

She sent me an e-mail concluding: “Please, do come and give my class a half hour session. I would be eternally grateful.”

I was delighted to agree and, as it happened, Mrs Neto’s class, I am sure to her great pleasure, did markedly, and to me surprisingly, better than any other group of children that I had given lessons to.

For my part, I was content that the class - in fact an hour-long - was a great success, in both its immediate and its longer term effects.

But, possibly my uppermost reaction was to rejoice that the class had been recorded for all time - as it had been on the day. My reason is this; a crucially important teaching-principle, unknown today, is that “one can only teach as one was taught oneself.”

At any time previously, becoming a good teacher had nothing to do with attendance at any teacher-training establishment. And indeed, without exception, those establishments teach nothing that is useful and much that is pernicious.

It simply involved spending one’s dozen or so years at school being taught by a wide variety of people, and then imitating the best of them and adding one’s own individual style.

There is no other way to learn to teach really competently. Teaching is not something that one can learn out of a book.

Thus, unbelievably, the only means of teaching that actually teaches effectively and speedily, has been all but completely lost.

But no longer irreversibly. Thanks to Mrs Neto’s wonderful piece of initiative and that recording, anyone who goes to our website can see a completely representative example of teaching as it always used to be done, and the traditional techniques that can be witnessed there can be applied to the teaching of any subject.

What exactly is it about traditional teaching that makes it so superior to the teaching that has replaced it everywhere throughout the Western world?  It could really be summarised simply as: science first; art second.

In any human activity, the science of it consists of the technicalities and techniques that everyone needs to know before starting to practise it; acquired by careful study.

The art of it is the personal element for each individual; is changeable according to time and place; and is acquired chiefly by practice, gradually learning to put to good effect the science that has first been mastered.

In the case of languages, the beginning of the science consists of learning thoroughly by heart – preferably with a large group of people chanting together – a language’s grammar and some of its basic vocabulary.

At the same time, in the case of schoolchildren, this develops their powers of concentration, their ability to memorise, and their ability to analyse closely and exactly and thereby to solve problems. It also gets them into the habit of being diligent, conscientious and persevering.

There is no other way of learning anything really effectively and quickly. Try learning to play chess by just watching and imitating others, and without first having learnt the names of the pieces, the moves they can make, and what must be accomplished in order to win a game.

Try learning to play golf without being taught how to select a suitable club, how best to hold it and then swing it, and how to play the basic strokes.

You will get no enjoyment out of the learning-process; you will be lucky if you can ever play the game with any competence at all; and, worst of all, you will inevitably pick up bad habits which will be difficult if not impossible to get out of.

Learning a language is very much more difficult than learning chess or golf. Therefore, the notion that children are themselves the best judges of how they should be doing their learning is, without exaggeration, insane.

Yet this is the notion that is at the very root of the “child-centred education” that is now everywhere pervasive.

Will there ever be a sufficiently widespread urge to do away with the child-centred teaching that has now had its destructive way for the last 50 years or so?

If so, thanks to the Sidney Stringer Academy’s wonderful initiative, it has now become a practical proposition to restore effective education.


Nearly half of students will not pay back government loans, warn MPs

Almost half of students who take out a loan will not pay them back, MPs warned on Monday, as they described the lending system as at “tipping point”.

Government miscalculations and problems with collecting repayments has put the loans system under threat, and an urgent review is needed to address the issue, the cross-party Commons business select committee said.

Around 45 per cent of loans taken out will never be repaid, the Government has estimated. This is close to the 48.6 per cent threshold at which point experts say the Government will begin to lose more money than is gains.

Higher education funding was reformed after tuition fees at English universities were trebled to a maximum of £9,000 a year in 2012. Students can get a loan from the Government to cover their fees, with the money paid back once they have graduated and are earning at least £21,000 a year. The debt is written off after 30 years.

Figures published earlier this year show that the Government’s latest estimate, known as the “RAB charge”, is that around 45 per cent of loans taken out under the new system will never be repaid. In its report, the select committee concludes that the Business Department has a “worrying record” of miscalculating its estimate of the RAB charge.

It adds: “More disturbing is the fact that independent forecasters have been recommending improvements to the Government’s methodology for some years, which the department has ignored. We recommend that it starts to listen now.”

The report goes on to suggest that the Government is already struggling to collect student loan debts.

Around 14,000 graduates living overseas are behind on their repayments, it says, arguing that a large proportion of debt from this group is due to such graduates “avoiding making payments”.

At the same time, the collection targets set by the department for the Student Loans Company, the government-funded body that provides and collects loans, are not fit for purpose, the report adds. The committee concludes that an urgent review of the sustainability of the student loans system is needed.

The report says: “We are concerned that Government is rapidly approaching a tipping point for the financial viability of the student loans system.”

Adrian Bailey, the committee chairman, said: “The Government’s estimates indicate the size of outstanding student debt will increase to more than £330 billion by 2044. With the prospect of a large potential black hole in the Government’s budget figures, Government needs to get its act together and properly calculate how much of these student debts are ever likely to be paid back.”

The report also says that proposals to sell off the student loan book could bring a “significant windfall” to the public purse, but warns that the department has yet to prove that it has enough evidence to decide whether selling the assets would be good value for money.


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